HC Deb 13 July 1981 vol 8 cc802-3 3.35 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 2, leave out 'a Scottish firm'.

This is not the most important of the amendments that I have tabled, but I realise that the selection cannot take into account all the matters that failed to be discussed—or were even fully discussed—in Committee. I have put down one or two of the matters that I thought might he worthy of further consideration, and perhaps we can deal with them in subsequent amendments, or, if that is not possible, at any rate on Third Reading, to which we shall come in due course.

My interest in the matter arises because I was involved in the initial United Nations Law of the Sea Conference when I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury Ai: that time I saw what I considered to be the inadequate performance of the Foreign Office in the early part of the last decade. The Foreign Office looked to its international obligations rather more than to Britain's advantages in obtaining a larger share of the North Sea and the consequent riches that were subsequently to be discovered there. If we are to avoid the errors and mistakes that were made at that time there are a number of lessons that we should understand and to which we should remain true.

My detailed interest in the Bill derives not only from that earlier experience, but from a constituent of mine. Mr. Glyn Ford, who was the co-ordinator of the marine resources project at Manchester university, where he is a senior research fellow. An understanding of the importance of the Bill is necessary. I had not fully appreciated all its implications, but we should remember that 70 per cent. of the earth's surface is covered by sea and that it remains the largest natural untapped resource that is available to us. We must avoid the problems that have arisen in the past, and the grab that took place, particularly in the last century, for these resources.

We wanted a greater degree of international agreement. My hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham) rightly tabled some of the most important amendments and undertook some of the most important discussions and debates in Committee, ably assisted, as he always is, by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). I am happy to find myself in the company of two such excellent hon. Friends in looking after, as I see it, the interests to which I came late but which they anticipated some time before I did.

The amendment covers a narrower spectrum. It is a probing amendment of the kind that one finds more frequently in Committee than on Report. However, as no adequate explanation was given I thought that I should try to discover, even at this late stage in our proceedings, why special reference has to be made to "a Scottish firm". An abstruse Scottish legal point may be involved, on which I have stumbled many times in the past. If so, perhaps the Minister will say so. However, it seemed to me rather odd that a body incorporated under the law of any part of the United Kingdom and…is resident in any part of the United Kingdom should exclude—or so the legislation suggests—"a Scottish firm". I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. John MacGregor)

I understand why the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) could not be present at our earlier debates. I know that he was much involved in the Committee stage of the Finance Bill this year. He and I have shared the ardours—and sometimes the pleasantries—of the Finance Bill over many years, so I know what a commitment it is. I therefore congratulate him on taking such an interest in the Bill at the end of his labours.

The right hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the Special Standing Committee procedure was applied to the Bill and that we had as a witness Dr. Vaughan Lowe from the faculty of law at Manchester university. I know the special interest that some people in Manchester have in this subject. I suspect that it may be a probing amendment, and I hope that I can give a satisfactory reply. In Scottish law, a "firm" is a legal term and is, or can be, as much a legal entity as an incorporated body is under the law of the United Kingdom. Scottish firms may, on the basis of the Partnership Act 1890, be treated as legal persons. They may therefore be made subject to a prohibition as in clause 1, and be liable to the criminal penalties that apply if the prohibition is breached. In the rest of the United Kingdom it is only incorporated bodies that may be treated in this way.

It is likely that a number of Scottish firms will be incorporated bodies, but as we were anxious to ensure comprehensiveness, for a reason that I shall give shortly, Scottish firms are included in the Bill. The reason for the completeness is that, as in the United States legislation, all legal entities or persons are covered. We were anxious to do the same for the United Kingdom legislation. It is for similar considerations that we have extensive references to "British persons" throughout the Bill.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

I thought that that might be part of the answer, but the legislation applies to any person who is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. I thought that that would have covered it.

Mr. MacGregor

Since Scottish firms have a separate legal definition, our anxiety was to include anyone who might be covered under provisions in clause 1.

There are precedents for referring to Scottish firms as such. I can give a number of them, but I think that the most relevant, probably—although it is not on all fours—is the Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-lines Act 1975. Since that was included there, too, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will see that there are reasons, for the sake of completeness, for including Scottish firms.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

With that explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to
Forward to